Elections to UN technical bodies rarely attract public attention.
But when delegates from 193 countries elect the next secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union at Bucharest’s Parliament Palace on Thursday, much more than the symbolic head of the secretive body will be at stake.
Experts say the outcome of the election, pitting Americans against Russians, will determine the extent to which nation-states can control the Internet.
The fight comes amid growing concern about the fragmentation of the global internet, with many technology experts and civil society groups worried about governments’ attempts to limit their citizens’ access to the internet.
Russia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Uganda are among the nations that have in recent years shut down public access to certain websites or the Internet more broadly during elections or social unrest. Last week, the Iranian government blocked access to some websites following protests that began with the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody.
“If the Russians win the ITU election, they could do a lot of damage,” said Justin Sherman, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber State Initiative in Washington.
Founded in 1865, ITU develops and defines global standards for the most advanced technologies – from 5G to facial recognition.
But Sherman said Russian representatives have sought for years to expand its powers to cover internet policy and infrastructure, and have supported proposals that would give governments more power to regulate its use.
“There are many reasons why this is a tense and uncertain election,” he said. “There is a growing interest in more government control of the web and less of a role for civil society in governing the internet.”
US candidate Doreen Bogdan-Martin has served in various capacities at the ITU for nearly 30 years and is working on a relatively anointed platform of bridging the digital divide and improving digital skills and the overall efficiency of the organization.
On the other side, the Russian candidate, currently the president of the Russian telecommunications operator Beeline, Rashid Ismayilov, is sitting. While he ran on a similar platform to increase global connectivity, he also advocated removing power from the United States and increasing the “sovereignty” of nation states, as well as making the ITU the primary forum for addressing important questions about how people behave. communicate on the Internet.
China, which has significant influence in the agency and is conducting global research for its proposals for a new internet infrastructure called “New IP” in 2020, is expected to vote for Ismailov.
The ITU is currently led by Houlin Zhao, a Chinese telecommunications engineer who has boosted China’s engagement with the organization and used the agency to promote global technology partnerships through the superpower’s Belt and Road initiative.
In a sign of how seriously the election is being taken, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken released a video supporting Bogdan-Martin’s campaign, one of many senior US officials to make public statements recently.
The internet itself, noted by some for its decentralized model, is technically not under the jurisdiction of the ITU and is largely regulated by non-profit groups such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), which distributes all IP addresses around the world. .
Civil society groups believe that the secretary-general has considerable discretion over the organization’s priorities and funding. They have expressed concern that if internet governance is brought under the jurisdiction of the ITU, it could lead to a slippery slope of nation-states having the power to formalize their efforts to censor and control the internet.
“This is a fact [the election] It’s not a foregone conclusion that the vision of a free and open internet lacks universal support,” said Emily Taylor, chief executive of Oxford Information Labs, a cyber intelligence firm. “Are we moving toward different internets, some of which are more state-run?”
Ismayilov, who held positions at Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei and was Russia’s deputy minister of telecommunications and mass communications from 2014 to 2018, is one of several senior Russian officials advocating the transfer of internet governance to the ITU.
In 2011, President Vladimir Putin said that the ITU intended to promote “the creation of international control over the Internet using monitoring and control capabilities.” Governments from Saudi Arabia to China have backed the idea as they worry about the unchecked power of Silicon Valley and the growing political influence of the United States.
Bogdan-Martin told the Financial Times that “the focus and direction of the ITU in the coming years will be crucial in determining the future of connectivity and digital cooperation.” “I believe that the ITU is one of those organizations where divisions can and should be separated to create more and better communication between all people.”
Ismayilov refused an interview and did not answer written questions sent by FT.
Over the past 10 years, Moscow has introduced increasingly strict rules to govern the local internet – called “Runet” – culminating in a “household internet law” in 2019.
The law sought to centralize control over internet infrastructure, routing traffic through the Kremlin’s digital censor Roskomnadzor. It also mandated the creation of a local domain name system to store and control Internet IP addresses should it become necessary to separate the nation’s Internet from Icann and the wider Internet.
According to experts, regardless of the outcome of the election, differences between governments on how to structure and manage the Internet will intensify, and it will be difficult to find a path that ensures that the Internet remains unified.
“Even if the U.S. wins, it’s going to be a tough road ahead,” Sherman said.